The ever-evolving metagame
A look through the evolution of the metagame during the very end of a season (with the Top 8 Rayquaza/Groudon list from Portuguese Nationals)
07/01/2015 by João Lopes
Greetings, fellow Pokémon players!
Let me get straight to the point. In this article, I’ll be talking about three things and three things only. So let me give them some fancy titles:
Table of contents
Good, now you know what you're in for.
Well, to be honest, this article has a singular theme: metagame evolution between tournaments. Of course, it will have more focus in the matters at hand – the upcoming U.S. National Championships. Still, I think it is more beneficial to understand how to approach a new metagame rather than thinking exhaustively about what may be played at one single tournament. You’ll see what I mean as you read the article. Without further ado:
Canadian Nationals is over. As I write this article, the only big tournament we have left before Worlds is U.S. Nationals. In terms of attendance, it is the biggest tournament of the entire season.
I am Portuguese. For me, it matters little how far we are from that particular tournament since I, naturally, will not be participating in it. However, since the American players make up such a huge chunk of the Pokémon TCG player base, the huge hype toward this particular tournament is more than understandable.
But what about the thousands of players, like myself, who will not be participating in it? To what interest is the analysis of the decks that are played there? Why should we care?
"It will define the Worlds metagame!" you say. "The results from such a big tournament will surely be an indication of what will be successful in Boston!"
Well, my dear reader, you’re neither right nor wrong.
The U.S. Nationals metagame is very important for Worlds competitors. There is no doubt in that statement. However, many overvalue the fidelity of those results. Let me explain.
"The more, the merrier" is not applicable in every situation and this is one of the exceptions as herein lies the difference between Worlds and U.S. Nationals. Worlds is a tournament for a select group of good players; U.S. Nationals is a much bigger group of players at a generally lower level.
Even if some players will arrive at the convention center with a solid, persistently tested deck, many will gamble, use a deck that was lent to them the morning of the tournament, make a poor choice due to lack of testing, experiment a crazy deck, try to be "different" by playing a rogue deck, use a deck from last year's Cities, or try a "Six Corners" counter-style deck, among many other deck choices made with less-than-optimal judgment.
"But those players will weed themselves out in the first few rounds," you say.
That would be true if Pokémon’s tournament results weren’t so metagame-oriented (as most card games are). With that being the case, those players will end up shaping the tournament results in a completely different way. It requires different predictions and testing processes to adapt to each of these tournaments.
Think of it this way: don’t you think it's strange that players who do well in Nationals often do poorly at Worlds? Of course, the reverse is also true. More often than not, it isn’t due to their playing ability; it takes a lot of skill to do well in either tournament! It is due to their deck choices and the reasoning behind them.
Unsurprisingly, the metagames from both tournaments are never a perfect match – far from it, actually.
How well did Pyroar do at Worlds 2014? What about Big Basics? Not even Top 8? Maybe Gothitelle in 2013, since that deck dominated U.S. Nats? No? Hm…
This is not just a trend; it is the evolution of the player base. As players get better and better, it results in a metagame that evolves much more quickly. You’ll see the increasing difference as the years go by. You can see for yourself: start with any given year and watch the difference in results from U.S. Nationals to Worlds get bigger with each passing year.
The only purpose of history in life is to learn from it. Otherwise, you’ll be doomed to repeat it.
I know I may be hurting someone’s ego here, but U.S. Nationals presents to us a young, unpolished, and very skewed metagame. But is it useless? No! It is one that will make a great foundation for players to start their serious testing for Worlds – almost like a starting database for testing teams.
That is the true impact of the U.S. Nationals metagame leading toward Worlds.
To give you a practical example: last year we (Portuguese players) gathered before Worlds for an organized testing week. During said week, we tested all combinations of possible matchups between the most popular decks in the format. By doing so, we arrived at the conclusion that Pyroar struggled against many popular matchups. We knew Pyroar players would conclude the same, so we choose Virizion/Genesect knowing that Pyroar would have little showing (if any).
This is just an example of how more time and more testing between two tournaments – even in the same format – can produce entirely different metagames.
This is, however, considering a larger time frame and a more restrictive player base.
A completely different scenario is the comparison between Canadian Nationals and U.S. Nationals. Even though they are not comparable in terms of player attendance, they both welcome pretty much any player, which is certainly not the case for Worlds. Besides that, we have to factor in the similar cultures between both countries, making the borders between them very thin.
This game allows us to make friends all over the world. This is just one of the many advantages of playing Pokémon. But no pair of countries communicates better than the U.S. and Canada. I mean, come on, they have the same language and same customs. There are bound to be some testing groups that feature both American and Canadian players; the communication between these two countries is so open that it is easy for one’s metagame to influence the evolution of the other’s.
With so much ease in communication and only one week separating the two events, expect the U.S. Nationals metagame to be a little more of what we’ve seen in Canada.
As I stated before, this article will feature two distinct analyses. First, I’ll go through my thought process while preparing for a National Championship. Then, we’ll take a look at the Top 8 from Canadian Nationals and see at what conclusions about the current metagame we can reach.
So first, let’s go back in time a bit…back to a land where Lysandre still has his precious Trump Card, players can discard everything without repercussion and Seismitoad regins supreme. This was the time when Portuguese Nationals took place.
This comes a bit late considering it has been over two weeks since Portuguese Nationals concluded. For that, I do apologize, but I've had very little time on my hands. Still, I wanted to publish something about our most important tournament, not only out of pride for my country, but also because players are a bit more curious about what is going on here after Worlds 2014. Still, with the banning of Lysandre’s Trump Card, discussing the Portuguese Nationals metagame in depth might not be of interest to most readers. I do believe the metagame has changed completely since it was previously centered on an archetype that has lost much of its power: Seismitoad-EX variants.
Then, how can I write something worth reading based off an irrelevant format?
There’s a lot to learn from the thought process behind choosing a particular build for an event. Even when analyzing decisions made during a format no longer as relevant, there are some factors that are ever-present in this game. Therefore, I want to talk about what went through my head during my preparation for this year’s Portuguese Nationals. Who knows, maybe it will help you consider some less obvious factors when deciding which deck you’ll choose for your next premier event.
So, let’s begin.
As you can tell, I ended up taking a Rayquaza/Groudon build for the tournament. So, first I’ll discuss why I ended up choosing this archtype above other, more successful ones.
Mega Rayquaza-EX was the poster child for Roaring Skies. Pokémon wanted the whole set to be based on the legendary Dragon. They wanted to see the powerful beast from the video game dominating at the top tables! However, they failed miserably…
They provided the format with a turbo engine that aided the already-too-obnoxious Seismitoad archtype. A deck that, ironically, would be the death of Rayquaza! PCL at its best…
So, why would I choose that deck for such an important tournament?
It doesn’t make sense, right? If the prior European Nationals and U.S. Regionals proved anything, it was that Rayquaza is not the play – Toad is. In fact, those tournaments showcased the power of Shaymin-EX and Sky Field in pretty much everything but Rayquaza: Fairy Toolbox, Speed Raichu, and Raichu/Bats all took advantage of Sky Field. Even Seismitoad itself, the archnemesis of Rayquaza decks, was the prime user of the new Shaymin-EX. All those sweet Trainer cards made specifically for the green Dragon were been being exploited by everyone. Rayquaza, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Poor Rayquaza…that is the ultimate humiliation!
Let me just make this clear: I did not chose Rayquaza because it was the underdog. The least a player must do to be considered competitive is choosing a deck for logical reasons, not just to be "different".
But that doesn’t make sense! The logical decision would be to pilot the best deck in the format. Clearly it was Seismitoad: a card got banned just because of that wretched deck!
So why wouldn’t I just play Seismitoad? Why wouldn’t I try the best deck available?
Although I am confident in my ability to play with new strategies, there are a few factors to consider:
- Other players have far more experience with the archtype.
Since I don’t like the gameplay genereated by Seismitoad-based decks, I've had little experience with it. As such, it is very unlikely that I’d be able to learn to play all the matchups perfectly and fine-tune the decklist in the little time I have for testing.
- Players will be prepared for that matchup.
Come on, Seismitoad is the most hated card in years! Even Seismitoad players don’t like it. Heck, they even tune up their lists to beat other Toads! Everyone is trying to take down that deck, so more people would be playing Seismitoad counters than the Toad itself.
- Mirrors are unpredictable.
They're so dependent on what you draw, who locks first, whether you can discard your opponent's DCE, if you can get another DCE after yours gets discarded…it is a boring, luck-based mess. If I play Toad, mirrors will happen and they will not be pleasant.
- Luck factor.
Flips, flips, flips, flips, flips…coins and dice flying everywhere! Want to heal? Flip. Laser for Sleep? Flip. Want to get rid of Energy? Flip. Literally everything the deck is trying to do is based on coin flips. Crushing Hammer, Hypnotoxic Laser, and Super Scoop Up – those cards shoudn’t even exist! They change the gamestate too much, all based on a coin flip. I don’t want to gamble all day long.
- If anyone finds a superior build, it probably won't be me.
With so many players testing Seismitoad for a long time, why would I, someone who has no relevant experience with the deck, be able to come up with a build superior to something they would bring? Sure, it could happen, but there’s only a slim chance of that.
Those are pretty solid reasons. Besides, I don’t like Seismitoad decks, it would be a chore to test them, and as I stated, I would be out of my element while playing them.
There is great value in playing decks that people dismissed in testing. Most players can’t adapt on the spot, so you’ll have a huge advantage right from the start. Some people take this concept to the extreme by trying hard to play the so-called rogue decks.
But if Seismitoad is the best deck, by that logic, wouldn’t Rayquaza be a bad choice?
Most "rogue" decks are nothing but a mesh of counters with no direct synergy between them. Sure, sometimes this kind of strategy pays off, but only in a very narrow metagame. Those decks usually lose to anything but what the decks they're specifically designed to counter. They have a specific function that relies entirely on what your opponent does. They are meta-dependent and fragile, and although they're rewarding in the right metagame, they come with a considerable risk factor.
Rayquaza does not fit into that category. Rayquaza is a solid, proactive deck. It does its own thing, its own strategy, and it poses a threat rather than responding to other strategies. A consistent, proactive deck is best suited for an environment where everyone is trying to beat a certain deck. This will limit their options and clog their decks with stuff that is useless against a deck they didn’t predict would show up.
No one expects Rayquaza. Most players assume it is a bad choice for the pre-LTC ban since it loses to Seismitoad decks. As such...
So, what decks already have the tools to beat Quaza whether they expect it or not?
Seismitoad decks shaped the format. As a result, all decks from this metagame fall into one of four categories:
- Seismitoad variants – Well, this one is obvious, isn’t it? All Toad decks have the same shell: Crushing Hammer, Hypnotoxic Laser, and Lysandre’s Trump Card. The decks vary on what approach they take when it come to getting all those dreaded Item cards. Most use Shaymin-EX to burn though the deck, but others use Slurpuff to have the card advantage in the mirror, and finally there’s the Crawdaunt variants that use this extra Evolution line as a means to combat Groudon and try to stop the lock in the mirror match. Nevertheless, the core strategy is the same. Pretty much everyone knows how these guys do business.
- Groudon decks – Seismitoad does have trouble against one particular archtype: Groudon. Omega Barrier shuts down Toad’s strategy completely and that alone is a reason for this deck to be popular. Having Mega Turbo makes it a solid deck against the rest of the meta. Pair that with a very favorable matchup against Seismitoad decks and you've got yourself one very popular archtype.
- Night March – Solid strategy, very cheap to build. Many players will pick this deck if they feel unconformable with this rest of the archtypes available (and in this meta, that’s very likely). It can score cheap wins and even luck out against Seismitoad with a good start. Even with Trump Card around, this is a popular deck.
- The rest – Anything that tries to beat Seismitoad. Yep, that’s pretty much it. Virizion/Genesect with a engine to make it faster, Aromatisse with Regirock to protect Energy, Manectric with its own Seismitoad, Silent Lab-based decks…anything that’s viable has to counter Seismitoad.
Out of those decks, only Groudon (and, Seismitoad, of course) can be a problem to Rayquaza. Wobbufett paired with Silent Lab can buy them enough time to build up two Primal Groudon before you can set up the first Mega Rayquaza.
What really happens is that eventually you can get Sky Field and/or Lysandre and then set-up Mega Rayquaza and immediately start plowing through their field. No techs are required. The best way to beat Groudon is to make the list as consistent as possible. So, optimizing the deck to win this matchup does not get in the way of the core strategy of the deck.
This is why I found that Rayquaza was such a solid choice for Portuguese Nationals: a solid deck no one is expecting that had an excellent matchup against the majority of the field.
Besides, piloting such a fast deck has its advantages: finishing the game in less time gives the player more time to rest between rounds. Since the Top 8 play out in the evening, player exhaustion could be a relevant factor.
There’s the big bad Seismitoad deck left. How will we beat it?
Well, Rayquaza can’t beat everything. There had to be someone to ruin the party…
The sole reason players did not even consider Rayquaza as a viable option is because of the terrible Seismitoad matchup. Leafeon and Virizion came up as potential candidates to take out the Toad menace. However, they did little to nothing. Next was Cobalion paired with Audino to cure the ailments from Hypnotoxic Laser. However, since they could, at the time, recycle everything with LTC, it was a matter of time before they would overpower Cobalion. None of those techs were able to turn the matchup into something winnable.
I ended up trying the Pokémon guaranteed to beat Seismitoad: Primal Groudon.
I started by testing a 1-1 line in the deck. Of course, that didn’t go so well. With no reliable way to get Pokémon out of the deck, Groudon-EX would just be stuck active and take too much damage before Primal Groudon-EX could come out. Even if Groudon Mega Evolved in time, it was too slow.
A 2-2 line would prove to be just as problematic. Not only did it not solve the problems stated above, it also made the deck much less consistent.
A few weeks ago, Chris Fulop was writing some articles about his Speed Rayquaza deck. In one, he mentioned how some builds use the traditional Archie’s Ace in the Hole/Empoleon combo, so why not use the same strategy with Maxie's Hidden Ball Trick and Primal Groudon?
How could I not think of that? If seemed so obvious! I tried it, and it worked like a charm.
Before going into detail about the card choices, here’s the final list I took to Nationals.
Rayquaza/Groudon by João Lopes
- 3x Rayquaza EX
- 3x M Rayquaza EX
- 4x Shaymin EX
- 1x Altaria Staff Promo
- 1x Swablu
- 1x Jirachi EX
- 1x Primal Groudon EX
- 2x Exeggcute
- 3x Rayquaza Spirit Link
- 1x Winona
- 1x Colress
- 1x AZ
- 1x Maxie's Hidden Ball Trick
- 1x Lysandre
- 1x Lysandre's Trump Card
- 4x Battle Compressor
- 4x VS Seeker
- 4x Trainer's Mail
- 4x Ultra Ball
- 2x Acro Bike
- 3x Mega Turbo
- 2x Escape Rope
- 3x Sky Field
- 1x Computer Search
- 3x Double Colorless Energy
- 5x Fighting Energy
If you've ever played with Speed Rayquaza or even read about it, then the core engine of this deck might be familiar. This deck takes Shaymin-EX’s ability to its utmost potential. The rule of thumb is that most cards in this deck must be able to be played down immediately.
This is one of many archtypes in this format that relies on a very strong opening since the true strength of Rayquaza is in the tempo advantage it gets over every other deck. The same is true for Night March. In this deck, however, the attackers, while harder to set up, are not as frail. People often forget that Mega Rayquaza is a 220 HP beast. Since when was a Pokémon with that much health easy to put down?
Setting up Rayquaza results in a board presence that is very difficult to match. After a good turn one, rare is the need to get anything else. A Sky Field to get your maximum damage output back, maybe a Lysandre to drag out whatever they're trying to set up – situational cards to keep you on a steady pace.
The first-turn burst is the highest priority.
In my opinion, the two strongest cards in this format are Shaymin-EX and Trainers' Mail. The first needs no explanation of why it is such great card and the second provides free, selective draw – an ability far too powerful in card games. When pairing the two together, they form an engine that grants the player the ability to go through pretty much the entire deck on turn one.
With that in mind, the list was made to maximize the value of those two cards. That means that the card choices lean toward resources that can used right away rather than other options that may be more useful in the long run. Ultra Ball and Acro Bike are prime examples here; the latter, however, is less useful than it appears to be, but still extra drawpower.
Expendable resources also contribute to the turn-one Maxie’s Hidden Ball Trick into Primal Groudon. Since it’s so easy to empty the hand, getting that enormous beast into play right at the start of the game is actually very close to guaranteed. That is the key weapon against Seismitoad decks. Instead of being a less effective Rayquaza deck with some solutions against Seismitoad, this is a turbo build with a hard counter to that deck.
The best thing about running Groudon? The strategy remains the same! You just choose a path: Rayquaza or Groudon. Then, get your desired Mega Pokémon into play. After that, go through the deck, scouting for Mega Turbo and use Supporters as auxiliary tools during the rest of the match. It’s that simple!
This strategy is more effective in a known environment. Imagine this: you’re going first and your opponent opens Shaymin-EX. Every deck besides Groudon runs Shaymin-EX! What do you do? Do you go for Groudon or for Rayquaza? Do you make an effort to keep an extra Stadium in your hand? Do you end your turn with a Supporter in hand or just a VS Seeker?
Those are questions that can only answered by knowing what you’re facing.
Playing against Trevenant? Go for Rayquaza and try to end your turn with Lysandre in hand.
Playing against Seismitoad? Go for Groudon and try to end your turn with AZ in hand.
Playing against Night March? Prioritize getting Altaria out and leave an Exeggcute active.
Playing against mirror? Try building multiple Rayquaza and leave an Exeggcute active.
As you can see, the strategy you opt for when going first is very dependent on your knowledge of the opponent’s deck. That makes it great in a smaller environment like Portuguese Nationals, but maybe not as good in a wider field such as U.S. Nationals.
There are still a few cards left for me to cover. Let’s go thought them:
- Jirachi EX – A great tool for getting the turn-one Groudon. Otherwise, a consistency booster and a way to get a specific Supporter in the late game.
- AZ – Not only a great way to clean up damage on the board, but a great way to remove a Pokémon that has been dragged Active by the opponent. Very useful when you don’t have the Energy attachment to retreat or when the Active Pokémon is Asleep (usually via Hypnotoxic Laser or Malamar-EX). It can also be used to reuse Shaymin-EX’s Set Up Ability.
- Two Escape Rope – One of the ways to quickly get out of the Wobbufet lock versus Groudon decks (the other is the Battle Compressor/VS Seeker combo to get Lysandre more quickly).
But is this deck still good now that the format is changed? Well, the Rayquaza strategy is still strong. However, some card choices depend on what you expect to face. If Seismitoad dies out, Groudon might no longer be needed. However, if Night March gets popular, an extra line of Altaria is a good choice. Also, there is no Trump Card to cycle through Altaria, so a safer Safeguard counter is advised.
But let me just get one thing clear: YOU WILL NOT DECK OUT!
Please don’t even start to think about this irrational fear. We never had Trump Card before, so why is it suddenly bad to draw cards? Use the four Shaymin-EX and all the Item cards with no fear. Believe me, I only used to use Trump Card to weaken Night March and to get back Altaria against Safeguard. Never have I used it to prevent a deckout. You’ll just have to do some resource management. It’s not that hard!
So, with that aside, is Rayquaza a good choice for the upcoming U.S. Nationals? Let’s see what happened in the Canadian Nationals.
With the sudden banning of Lysandre’s Trump Card, the Boundaries Crossed – Roaring Skies metagame has been shaping up to something completely different from what we’re used to. Many players didn’t even realize how crucial of a card Lysandre’s Trump Card had become or how it influenced players to play in a different way. The sudden banning of that card is more than justified: not only did it warp the game around it, it nullified some of the game’s most important mechanics. Pokémon distinguished itself from other card games due to its unique resource-management aspect. With LTC, that aspect was completely gone! Hence, Trump Card was banned and we were left with a fresh, new format to discover.
So, what did Canadian players make of this new uncharted land? What strategies proved to be the most effective? Let’s take a look at their Top 8 results.
Okay, maybe the title of this section spoiled it a bit, but the results were public as early as Saturday evening.
Crobat was downright dominant. Who knew it would have such a strong presence in the new format? We always knew how strong it was, but to be this format-defining? Wow.
There are a couple of interesting decks in this list. However, I would to point out one thing first: not one Night March deck made the cut.
Do not misinterpret things here; Night March was popular, definitely. But was it successful? Oh no, not at all!
Looking at the top decks, we can clearly see why. Night March probably suffered from being too hyped. All of the decks in the Top 8 were, in some way, prepared for that specific matchup. The Crobat line snipes all the low-HP basics, Landorus does the same, and Chase Moloney's Metal deck was heavy on the Seismitoad/Aegislash strategy that makes Night March players struggle to get their KOs. Clearly Night March was recognized as a strong deck and players were prepared to demolish that archtype.
Six of the eight decks were Crobat-based. SIX! Clearly that was the most popular and successful strategy of the tournament. What is even more interesting is that the remaining two decks were counters to Crobat strategies. Metal makes attacking with Double Colorles Energy almost impossible and most Crobat decks are based on Raichu or Seismitoad (both attackers very dependent on that Special Energy card) while Big Basics has Garbodor which shuts off all the Bats and Shaymin-EX that usually tags along, while having a solid attacker that tramples Raichu (Landorus-EX).
An interesting deck that popped up during this tournament was Yveltal/Crobat. No, not Yveltal-EX, but the non-EX Yveltal paired with Crobat and Absol.
This deck had quite a following and one made it to Top 4. While I don’t have the list, this is my rough sketch based off what I saw on the stream.
- 1x Absol
- 3x Yveltal
- 2x Eevee
- 2x Leafeon
- 2x Shaymin EX
- 4x Zubat
- 4x Golbat
- 2x Crobat
- 3x Professor Juniper
- 3x N-supporter
- 2x Colress
- 2x Lysandre
- 1x AZ
- 4x VS Seeker
- 1x Dowsing Machine
- 2x Virbank City Gym
- 4x Hypnotoxic Laser
- 3x Muscle Band
- 1x Silver Bangle
- 4x Ultra Ball
- 2x Repeat Ball
- 1x Sacred Ash
- 7x Darkness Energy
Absol is a nice counter to the so-popular Raichu/Crobat decks. Yveltal not only charges other Yveltal or Raichu, it is an effective attacker against Night March. Of course, this a counter deck, so it may be only successful in this particular tournament. However, if things don’t change too much, it may be a solid choice for U.S. Nationals.
So, based on this information, what can we expect for the U.S. Nationals metagame?
In a week, not much will change.
Expect Seismitoad decks to be present, but much less dominant. Night March will still be popular since many players are comfortable with that deck and will not change it overnight. With that said, beware of the early rounds, where you’ll be most likely to face that deck. For the later rounds, the deck will probably die out just like in Canada.
Crobat will be popular, either because people have been reaching the same conclusions as Canadian players during their testing or because they saw how successful it was in Canada and will be testing Crobat variants during this week.
With so many Bats flying around, don’t expect a good amount of Groudon decks. They all lose to Crobat-based archtypes which might, in turn, cause a resurgence of Seismitoad decks.
I recommend a deck that's prepared for aggro decks like Night March and Rayquaza in the early rounds, but is focused on beating Seismitoad, Raichu, and Landorus paired with Crobat in the later ones. That pretty much describes a Crobat deck itself. Maybe you could try the Yveltal/Crobat variant.
Anyway, that does it for this article. Good luck to all the players playing in the U.S. National Championship, and for everyone playing at this year’s World Championship, good testing!
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